Walk for water

By Briony Penn, April 2011

How much does your daily dose of water weigh?

Imagine walking from Royal Oak into downtown Victoria to fill up a large plastic container with water and then walking home with the 20-kilogram load supported by a narrow head strap. Then imagine that you have to do it every other day while feeling weak, sick and hungry, and with children to mind along the way. Add in the fact that a prolonged drought has left the rivers low and harbouring disease and hungry crocodiles, and you’ll understand the plight of the Masaai women of Oleleshua, Kenya.

Peggy Frank, a local AIDS activist and founder of “positively AFRICA” came up with the idea of re-enacting the women’s water walk here in Victoria in an event called Water Walk 2011 on May 15 this year. Victorians will get a chance to see if they can carry water even in good health African-style (although with a much reduced load as few of us can carry our daily water needs, let alone with a head strap) over a 10-kilometre distance around Beaver/Elk Lake with the goal of raising money to improve access to water for Oleleshua and seven neighbouring villages. 

Water Walk 2011 is not just about the plight of African women with AIDS but also raising awareness about our role in climate change and the world-wide scarcity of water.

Water Walk 2011 joins other successful events, such as the annual Portland, Oregon Walk for Water. Frank and her team of volunteers challenge businesses, individuals and families to form a team of 10 who will collectively carry water from the starting line 10 kilometres to an information “village.” Along the way, there will be surprises and challenges for the walkers. Six schools have already taken up the baton. In lead-up activities, they are learning about global water issues, the walk, and the issues for people in the Masaai villages they’ll be helping. 

One of the lead-up activities is for kids to calculate how much water they use on a daily basis and how much it would weigh if they had to carry all that water. The average Capital Regional District rate of water consumption is 353 litres or 353 kilos—heavy! Frank points out “Kids realize pretty fast that there is no way they could ever carry the water they consume unless they stop needless toilet flushing and long showers.”

Adult teams are also encouraged to sign up early as registration is limited, and teams may want to develop a costume theme, and do their own fundraisers—with help from the Water Walk 2011 team of volunteers. Registration for each adult team of 10 is $200, and half that for the school teams. Successful pre-event fundraising will mean clean water in Oleleshua! There are activities for non-walkers at the “village” where prizes will be awarded to teams in a variety of categories at the end-of-walk celebration where clean water will be available.

Peggy Frank is hoping the Water Walk 2011 will be the first annual public event supported by positively AFRICA, VIDEA and a yet-to-be-determined sponsor. Her passion is clearly water. What she loves about the project is how it connects local and global water issues, and addresses climate change, fairness and sustainability, all in one simple act. Videos and testimonials from the Portland Walk for Water highlight the good spiritedness, empathy and teamwork of the challenge. Not surprisingly, Oprah has waded metaphorically and practically into this issue too—she discovered that she can’t even lift the 20 kilos.

Frank founded positively AFRICA after visiting a group of Rwandan women who were survivors of the genocide and living with HIV because of infections from rape. The women lived in the Village of Hope. “It started me thinking about taking a positive look at HIV in Africa. If you can turn something as horrible as HIV, genocide and rape into hope, then anything is possible,” said Frank.

From there the idea snowballed; positively AFRICA linked up with an experienced Victoria agency, VIDEA, and started reaching out to villages of hope all over Africa. “There were people already trying to start things. They had community and motivation, they just lacked money to realize their goals. They wanted health, food, education, economic opportunities, schools—and safe drinking water. Its not hard to imagine the power of connecting to a community in North America who help you achieve something as simple as getting clean water. Positively AFRICA is really about hope and dignity.”

Over the years positively AFRICA volunteers have helped support 30 “dirt-floor” projects in six African countries. Today their main connections are to communities in Kenya and Lesotho, while Frank trains home-care workers throughout Africa. “My focus is health. Without health you can’t do anything. I found that out first-hand living with HIV in the ’90s when there was no medicine in North America.” Frank nearly died before the anti-virals became available here. “I remember how difficult it was doing the simplest things when I was feeling sick. With the task loads for African women—getting clean drinking water, firewood, growing gardens and looking after children—I felt reducing the effort and time related to fetching water would improve health and create opportunities for income generation.”

Money raised by Water Walk 2011 will go towards solutions proposed by the women. Depending on the amount of money raised, the proceeds will provide the women with more donkeys, a water truck, water catchment and storage systems or deep-drilled wells. Wells are not considered the best solution for Oleleshua due to problems with salination and contamination.

If your office mates, friends and family want to get involved in any way with the Water Walk 2011 on May 15, visit www.positivelyafrica.org for registration and details on how to support this great initiative. Water Walk is also looking for an ongoing corporate sponsor who wants to make this exciting initiative its contribution to global issues.

Briony Penn, PhD is a naturalist, journalist, artist and award-winning environmental educator. She is the author of The Kids Book of Geography (Kids Can Press) and a A Year on the Wild Side.